Sorley’s Black Dog

The children’s game ‘Telephone’ (called ‘Chinese whispers’ in the UK) can have hilarious results. It works best when the seed phrase is unexpected. The same is true in oral transmission: bigger changes occur when the model is unfamiliar. If no template exists in the listener’s memory, then the closest fit can produce a laugh.

The prize for the funniest garbling of a pibroch name must surely go to PS 108. The mixture of cultural expectation and market forces 200 years ago generally leads to more dignified deviations appearing in print, whether by accident or intention. The publication date of Bowdler’s improvement on Shakespeare is significant: 1807. This advertisement appeared in The Times for its 1819 edition:

1819 advertisement in The Times

1819 is the year that Donald MacDonald published his book, known on this site as D1. It contains the following title:

D1 (1819) title of PS 108

I don’t think MacDonald altered this pibroch title intentionally. The most plausible explanation for the conflicting evidence we have is that he was swayed by the cultural climate of his time. Between 1760 and 1819, pibroch was increasingly identified as something ancient and high-register; vintage not plonk; classical rather than popular music. Neither MacDonald nor his readers would expect a pibroch to be associated with a dog. Titles containing the word Cumha (lament) were abundant, whereas titles containing the word  (dog) are not found in any form of print – book, competition advertisement, programme or newspaper report – until 1932. It then appears in the notes of Piobaireachd Society Book 4 with the comment ‘This grotesque title presumably is a mistranslation of some Gaelic phrase’ (p. 122).

The perception ‘grotesque’ betrays an ignorance of Gaelic culture. It seems that we have not just one pibroch about a dog, but two: ‘Samuell’s Black dog’ (PS 108) and ‘McLeod’s Dog Short Tail’ (PS 131). The question is, were these dogs real or are they mythical? Dogs feature prominently in Gaelic storytelling, so it comes as no surprise to find them in pibroch titles. It is equally unsurprising that a native Gael in the early 1800s should settle on cumha in place of cù, particularly in the context of a book produced for the English-speaking gentry.

Here is the title of PS 108 in Colin Campbell’s Instrumental Book 1797 (C2):

Called Samuell's Black dog

Today, I updated its page on our Musical Materials site, adding new recordings for the pronunciation of its variant titles. Warm thanks to Allan MacDonald for providing these recordings, which are part of a long-term project increasing sensitivity to Gaelic culture in the piping world. Allan also contributed an illuminating discussion, explaining how the adjective dubh (black) could describe the dog, the lament, or Samuel (an anglicisation of Sorley). It lasts just 4 minutes; do take a moment to listen.


2 thoughts on “Sorley’s Black Dog

  1. There was also, as well as bowdlerization or ‘toning down’ the language to match the sensibilities of the intended new patrons, a degree of elevating or ‘hyping up’, presumably to make the music of the now acceptable ‘noble savages’ more in line with the stereotype being peddled. Thus, we find a terse understatement – a typical Gaelic expression – translated as the grandiose ‘A Flame of Wrath for Patrick Caogach’, whereas its older label in the Nether Lorne Ms was simply ‘Lasan MacCeich’, or ‘MacCeich’s Fire’.

    Another is ‘Cumha Clavers’ (Donald MacDonald’s Ms) which becomes ‘Lament for the Viscount of Dundee’,  Graham of Claverhouse, known familiarly as ‘Clavers’; and there is ‘Siubhal Shemus’ which blossoms into ‘Lament for the Departure of King James’, avoiding any possible ambiguity about the name, as in Derry he is still known as ‘Shemus na caca’ because he (James II) prematurely abandoned the Battle of the Boyne (1668) where his Catholic supporters were badly defeated by William of Orange – a tactful glossing over of an awkward situation.

    But the one which most intrigues me is how ‘Couloddin’s Lament (in the NL) became ‘Lament for Patrick Og MacCrimmon’ in Angus MacKay’s book. There are, in the Nether Lorne Ms, two tunes, ‘MacAlister’s Dead Lament’ and ‘MacAlister’s Lively Lament’ which seem to allude to someone  assumed dead and being found later to be still around, an event which oddly parallels the similar story about Patrick Og – was the battle still a sensitive subject, given the Royal involvement  with the atrocities committed there?

  2. The version of the ‘Flame of wrath’ title I like best was submitted by 80 year old Donald MacRae in his tune list when he entered the ‘gold medal’ competition in 1835 for former winners of the prize pipe. (He won in 1791).  The title as it appeared in his list of six tunes was simply ‘Flaming mad’.

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